SAVOY – Cortney Lamb learned his lesson last season. Learned it well, the University of Illinois junior proved once again Saturday.
"It's my fault I came in out of shape last year," Lamb said after running the fastest 8-kilometer time of his life while placing third in the Illini Classic cross-country meet. "That was motivation for me this summer. I wanted to come back and prove I could be where I was my freshman year."
As a collegiate newcomer, the 1994 Nebraska state cross-country champion never failed to finish among the UI's top six. By season's end, Lamb was Illinois' No. 4 finisher in both the Big Ten Conference and NCAA District IV races.
A year later, though, Lamb could have served as the poster boy for the sophomore slump. Only once did he finish among Illinois' top five runners. And by the district meet, his stock had so fallen that UI coach Gary Wieneke omitted Lamb from his list of seven entrants.
"It was just tough seeing everybody run," said Lamb, who watched from the sidelines that day. "I know I'm a better runner than that."
He's been proving it since Day One this season. In Illinois' four meets so far, Lamb has been Illinois' No. 2 finisher three times and No. 3 the other.
And by finishing Saturday's race at the UI Blue Golf Course in 25 minutes, 6 seconds, Lamb knocked a healthy 17 seconds off his previous personal record in the 8K.
"He's just getting better every time out," Wieneke said. "Where he ends up, we're not putting a ceiling on that."
Lamb had plenty of company on the PR roll call Saturday. No fewer than nine Illini ran their best 8K times ever as the hosts easily won the three-team meet. Led by runner-up Scott McClennan (25:04), Illinois placed four runners in the top six and five in the top 11.
"We needed to get a good team race together because we really hadn't had one all season," said Lamb, referring to the 15-second spread between the UI's first through fourth finishers. "This will build our confidence."
In women's cross-country: Illini second.
Before the Illini Classic, UI coach Michelle Byrne urged her runners to start the race aggressively. Afterward, she wondered whether anyone was listening.
"We talked about how we wanted to execute, and we didn't," Byrne said after her runner-up Illini finished 39 points behind Marquette. "I think a part of it is they're a little bit scared of going out hard, thinking they're going to die. And they won't."
Marquette swept the top three spots and placed five runners in the top eight. Illini Candace Nicholson placed fifth in the 5-kilometer race in 18:13.
"We finished really, really strong," Byrne said, "but we just had given them too much daylight early and we couldn't make up that ground."
Even Nicholson admitted to making her move too late.
"Had I been up in the race earlier, I know I could have caught her," the UI sophomore said of winner Amy Erickson of Marquette. "I would have had it in me to go after her."
Illinois was without Danielle Fonzino, sidelined by sinus problems. The junior had been the UI's top finisher in its previous two meets.